Conditioned Incompetence

“The New Leader Holds Court”, by Midjourney AI; my own prompt

Aurélien has been writing lately about how much of the malaise of our crumbling modern systems can be attributed to the incompetence (defined as inability to do the job) of those administering them and working in them. The horrific and growing failures of our education system, for example, surely cannot be attributed to deliberate, evil, insane, malicious teachers out to miseducate and fail their students.

Mostly, this malaise is due to the sheer unworkability of systems that are so huge, bloated and sclerotic that even when everyone knows what needs to be done, it still cannot be done — examples being the US failure to adopt the metric system, or to dispense with the nonsense of daylight saving time. And in part, they’re due to the incompetence of the people working in those systems, mostly the people ‘at the top’.

That incompetence has several dimensions. Firstly, in large organizations, most executives and administrators have never done the job of their subordinates (they were parachuted in from MBA or other ‘professional’ schools, or moved laterally within the organization). The ludicrous assumption seems to be that if you did reasonably well in ‘management’ courses in university, or in some simple on-the-job management task, you’ll be good at managing anything you’re assigned to do.

Secondly, modern post-secondary educational organizations do not attract people with excellent, practical skills and experiences. They reward academic ‘achievements’ (as assessed by other academics), such as publishing articles about their theories in journals, not skill at teaching, facilitating, or mentoring. How can they possibly be expected to teach anyone how to do anything, let alone run a department or an entire organization?

So you have a situation where the people running the show, making the key decisions and mandating that they be followed, are inevitably making incompetent decisions, with inevitably poor, and even (consider our ‘management’ of CoVid-19 for example) catastrophically poor results and outcomes. They simply don’t have the skills and experience to be competent. This is arguably true in all of our systems — political, economic, educational, health etc.

And, making matters worse, these incompetent decision-makers are working within codependent hierarchies that are echo chambers, where being a sycophant is rewarded and where challenging incompetence is “a career-limiting move”. So total bone-heads like Antony Blinken, Rochelle Walensky, Larry Summers, Victoria Nuland, and Jerome Powell (not to mention the two most recent US presidents), for example, continue to hold positions of power year after year and in position after position, despite having long records of dangerous, uninterrupted, staggering incompetence.

And not only do we have massive systems incapable of change or response to change, and incompetence up and down the hierarchy, we have the ‘players’ in each system conditioning each other to believe that what is in fact utter incompetence, is actually outstanding competence — “Look: my beloved boss and my friendly colleagues and my dutiful, obedient staff, and these consultants we hired, all say I’m wonderful, so I must be, right?”

As a result we have not just incompetence, but conditioned incompetence — incompetence that is rewarded and immune to challenge because all the ‘players’ are telling each other that they’re stellar performers and that what they’re doing is the right stuff. And so we have executives earning obscene incomes for mismanaging organizations in all economic sectors, taking credit for others’ work and for brief good fortune, and accountable only to others in their echo chambers.

No surprise then, that at all levels in all sectors of our society all over the world, both private and public, we see, to put it mildly, lousy leadership and fawning followership. Incompetence up and down the line.

And though you may be tired of hearing me say it, none of this is anyone’s fault. No one set out to create dysfunctional, crumbling systems run and operated by incompetents. It’s the inevitable result of our lack of essential skills and experience, our conditioning of each other, and trying to function in systems that are so huge and complex that they are unmanageable, and thus quickly and inexorably begin to collapse.

Look at any of the systems of industrial civilization and you’ll see, everywhere, the signs of inherent unmanageability, a dearth of real skills and experience, and conditioned incompetence. The decline of our education systems into expensive, dysfunctional, and irrelevant baby-sitting services. The decline of our political systems into competing gangs of short-sighted, power-crazed, sociopathic liars. The decline of our economic systems into vehicles for the organized theft from the poor, sick and lower castes by the obscenely wealthy. The decline of our health systems into overburdened, bankrupt, expensive, administratively-bloated shells of incapacity. Same goes for our transportation systems, our public infrastructure, our systems of trade, and all the other systems on which our civilization utterly relies.

All of them led and staffed by incompetent people doing their (awful) best to make inherently unmanageable and unsustainable systems work, when they cannot.

This is what collapse looks like. There is no ‘fixing’ these systems, least of all by replacing the ‘leaders’ with other incompetents. These systems are in the advanced stages of collapse, and in a few decades they will be gone, as extinct as the systems of ancient empires.

What will take their place is unpredictable and perhaps unimaginable: New types of feudal systems, perhaps; systems of barter and scrip; cobbled-together apprenticeship systems for learning essential skills; community-owned medical clinics run by nurses? Or perhaps, as the long collapse deepens, even more anarchic systems: economies without money, politics based on ad hoc citizens’ assemblies, health care systems without pharmaceuticals, and education systems without teachers? We will do what we must. It’s going to be interesting.

Once these systems have fully collapsed (perhaps many times, as naive replacement systems also fail), in a few centuries or millennia, if there’s any of us left, we will likely see the emergence of some viable, sustainable new systems, almost inevitably much more local, small-scale, practical and low-tech. Instead of experts and specialists, we’ll have become, and will rely on, experienced, competent generalists.

If we are able to do that, we’ll have relearned some of the capacities that enabled human societies to thrive for a million years, in the same ways societies of wild creatures have always thrived — tribally, collaboratively, skillfully, and in concert with the rest of life. Fit, again, and at last, for the more-than-human world in which we live.

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6 Responses to Conditioned Incompetence

  1. Ed O says:

    Incompetence would be inability to do a *doable* job. Inability to do a job that cannot be done due to systemic blocks is impotence. Most leaders are mostly impotent. (For that matter, if your idea that no one has any choice about anything is correct, then everyone is always impotent, so discussing what leaders do or don’t do is pointless.)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Well, yes, but incompetence makes the situation worse, and there are aspects of jobs that are doable that incompetents will manage, with the best of intentions, to fuck up anyway.

    From a no-free-will perspective one could say everything is pointless, but having a sense of why we’re fucked is, I think, interesting, and somewhat comforting. Won’t change anything, but still, I think, of value.

  3. Jack Alpert says:

    Dave is correct as usual. Thank you very much. Civilization in its current state is on course to kill most of the people who will live the century. Also correct in your statements is that existing leadership be it political, economic religious, cult is not in a position to fix anything. We should stop counting on them.

    Instead, we should look at civillizatiin as the movements of mass and energy. The only way for civilization to gracefully exist is if its controls have dominance over its momentum.

    Currently momentum relates to the people (8 billion) and their behaviors — (the things that force the masses to move and create momentum.)

    It is not hard to demonstrate that the 8 billion have control over the momentum. They don’t know it and they don’t know which behaviors they perform creates that momentum.

    However, the only way to get rid of the momentum is for the 8 billion to decrease probably to less than a global population of 100 million in the next 80 years.

    This could be accomplished by have only 500,000 global burths per year so that the population declines to that less than 100 million. What happens to the 8 billion? They all die of old age in 80 years.

    We could incorporate a clause ( something akin to abolition) into he social contract that controls the number of births global each year.

    If you don’t like that idea your choices are
    1. almost everyone starves to death or dies in conflict
    2. a single biogeneticist culls global population down to the sustainable 100 million.

    What might a viable civilization (one whose momentum does not injure people) look like? See this video
    60 minutes ”A non-injury producing Civilization”

    For more details see;
    The plan for Unwinding the Human Predicament

    Jack Alpert
    Stanford Knowledge Integration Lab. SKIL

  4. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Yes, I agree. I’d simply note that conditioned incompetence dovetails very nicely with the concept and reality of functional stupidity, which is much the same thing, although based around organizations and how they can promote, inculcate and condition stupid behaviour. Cf. Alvesson and Spicer’s Stupidity Paradox, where they consider five types of functional stupidity, from leadership induced, through structurally-produced to culturally induced.

  5. Vera says:

    Jack Alpert: I looked. Are you really saying we should stuff all humans into three megagigacities and leave the rest un-humaned? Tell me what could go wrong…

  6. Z says:

    One aspect of this problem is often that decision-makers are have no real understanding of the systems they attempt to “manage”. Hewlett Packard was a successful manufacturer of world-class computers and instrumentation because it was founded and run by engineers, not pen-pushing bean-counters who are more interested in share prices and branding than producing innovative, useful tech that works.

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